The End of Osheroff’s Dance: Lessons from a Life of Resistance and Love

As Abe Osheroff’s body slowly began to betray him in his 80s and 90s, one of his favorite lines was, “I have one foot in the grave but the other keeps dancing.”

That dance ended on Sunday, April 6, when the 92-year-old Osheroff died of a heart attack at his Seattle home.

Osheroff is remembered most for his rich life of political activism. From the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to streets all across the United States, he was a master strategist, energetic organizer, and courageous fighter.

But when I think about a world without Abe, it’s Osheroff-the-philosopher I will miss the most. Conversations with Osheroff typically turned into wide-ranging philosophy seminars — inquiry into the maddening complexity of being human in an inhuman world, focused on the difficult moral and political questions that he always pursued with intellectual rigor and a demand for accountability expected from himself and others. And at the same time that Osheroff was in this relentless pursuit of more knowledge and a deeper understanding, he squeezed all the joy possible out of this life. He taught and he told stories, he learned and he loved, with incredible passion.

First, the activism: Beginning in his teens, Osheroff organized tenants, the unemployed, and workers. In 1937 he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the U.S. wing of the internationals fighting in Spain. After Pearl Harbor, he re-entered the fight against fascism with the U.S. Army in Europe. While working as a professional carpenter, he also spent part of the 1950s moving around the country semi-underground, avoiding the FBI’s campaign to jail Communist Party members. After leaving the party in 1956, Osheroff moved to California and got involved in community organizing against real estate developers on the Venice canals. In 1964 he went to Mississippi to help build a community center. He worked behind the scenes in the Vietnam antiwar movement in California. In 1985 he went to Nicaragua with the Lincoln Construction Brigade, which he organized to build housing with a workers’ collective. Living in Seattle since 1989, he and his wife, Gunnel Clark, worked in that city’s antiwar movement. Osheroff continued to give talks at universities and high schools until several spinal surgeries made it increasingly difficult for him to travel. Along the way he made two documentary films about Spain and the legacy of the civil war, the award-winning Dreams and Nightmares in 1974 and Art in the Struggle for Freedom in 2000.

Second, the philosophy: Abe was a doer and talker, but rarely a writer. Perhaps the only disappointment friends have with Osheroff is that he never wrote a book that would have organized for us the lessons he took from his life. That’s why, a few years ago, I asked him to sit for a long interview, to make sure some of those ideas would be available. A transcript of that interview is online in chapters, with the full interview in a PDF file.

I was privileged to know Osheroff for a few years, and there are hundreds of friends and family members who knew him longer and better. I look forward to hearing their stories in the coming years, as we collectively remember not just the things Abe Osheroff did but a spirit that embraced an uncompromising resistance and an endless love for this world. I think it was that balance between a rage against injustice and a love for the beauty of creation that was at the soul of what Osheroff called “radical humanism.”

As we face the difficult times ahead — dealing with the mounting consequences of human arrogance and greed — more than ever we will need to find in ourselves the strength Osheroff had to continue fighting and to continue loving. We will need to harness, as Osheroff always did, both our hearts and our minds to the tasks ahead. We will need to remember to celebrate, as Osheroff always celebrated, both the joy and the sorrow of being human.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.